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    More than just a pretty place

    What started as a water treatment project has evolved into a preserve.

    [Times photos: Carlton Ward Jr.]
    A common gallinule perches on a branch in the area where Largo is building its park, near Highland Avenue and East Bay Drive.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 3, 2001


    LARGO -- There is a buzz about the spacious land at the southern tip of Highland Avenue.

    It comes from the sound of wood being chewed by metal into mulch. Mounds of mulch. Large mounds that look like small pyramids in the vast sand and dirt, giving it the feel of the Egyptian desert.

    photo
    The foundation for the park's elevated boardwalk winds through the forest.
    The process, at first glance, may appear to be a counterproductive nightmare in an urban area that constantly is searching for green space. But this project is all about preserving parkland.

    The wood being cut is the remains of Brazilian pepper trees, the dreaded import that pushes out native plants. In their place, the city will plant nearly 1,000 trees, about 2,300 shrubs and more than 10,000 other plants. The process is part of a project to create a nature preserve on 31 acres that city officials hope will be a showcase for Largo.

    Besides the planting, the city is building a two-story observation deck, a 3,000-foot-long boardwalk and a bike trail that will span nearly the entire development.

    A nature preserve wasn't the initial goal of this project. The land belonged to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which wanted to treat polluted stormwater from a canal that flows through the property and into Lake Seminole. That, too, will be done.

    So now, the project is part stormwater retention and part nature preserve. Its cost: $3.8-million, from a combination of government and private sources. Work began in April and is expected to take a year to complete.

    "The feeling was this was such a nice part of the city and so pristine, just to use it as a stormwater-retention facility would be a loss to the city," said City Manager Steven Stanton.

    Construction had gone so smoothly that the project was ahead of schedule, city officials said. But late Thursday, workers discovered a substantial layer of trash buried 2 feet below the site that could set back the project. The city has two options, Stanton said. Build around the trash or remove it, which would cost $100,000 to $250,000.

    Staff members will seek guidance from city commissioners at a meeting Tuesday.

    This is an exciting time for Cathy Santa, the city's recreation and parks director. In July, her department is to report to commissioners its ideas for a landfill between Largo Central Park and the current project. Santa said one idea for the landfill is to turn it into a multipurpose park.

    If commissioners approve the idea, Largo Central Park would grow to 171 acres, she said, a step closer to the dreams of some who envisioned the park as a playground for all ages in the heart of downtown Largo, like New York's Central Park.

    "I think we're really getting close to that," Santa said.

    The road to the nature preserve is a narrow driveway between Missing Links Driving Range and the Winn-Dixie supermarket on East Bay Drive. To the right of the road is a canal that has run dry during the current drought. About a half-mile south of East Bay Drive, workers will build what is called a diversion weir, a device city officials compare to a dam. The weir will send fresh rainwater from the canal through a pipe to a man-made pond.

    Before the stormwater gets to the pond, it will be treated with alum, a substance that will mix with the pollutants in the stormwater. The new compound, referred to as floc, will sit at the bottom of the pond. Two pipes are being built to connect the pond to a separate stream that meets with the canal before it reaches Lake Seminole. The floc is pumped into a manhole and directed to the city's wastewater treatment plant.

    Aside from the environmental benefits of the process, it also will be used to educate. Greg Brown, the city's parks superintendent, said the plan is to take science classes to the canal at the front of the park and then to the pond to see the effects of the treatment process.

    "It's a very neat project," Brown said.

    The roadway to this planned park leads to a vast vacant space. Large, maroon planks that will be the foundation of the observation deck sit on some of the space. It will be replaced with laurel oak and cypress trees.

    The bike path will lead to what will be the wetlands area. Large maple trees envelop the area, providing perhaps the largest area of natural shade in the city.

    "It's gorgeous back there," said Stanton, who likes to jog on the grounds. "When you are there, you don't even realize you are in the most densely populated county in Florida."

    The boardwalk, which circles the pond, also leads to the wetlands. The base of the boardwalk has been built and will connect in two places to the bike trail, which allows visitors to go to the observation deck.

    Two rows of thick telephone poles stand as the base of the deck. A 11/2-ton metal hammer is being used to drive the poles into place. When it is built, onlookers will be able to see much of the park, the canal and some subdivisions.

    Stanton remembers a time when it appeared this project would not happen. Swiftmud bought the land in 1976 for future flood control. The agency and Largo started talking about a multipurpose facility in 1997 after Swiftmud completed a similar project on Weedon Island.

    Swiftmud suggested that the city apply for money through its cooperative funding program to build a boardwalk and observation deck. The application was approved and the city got the money, $388,000, late last year, according to Swiftmud officials.

    "If the city had to do it by themselves, they may not have been able to do it," said Mike Holtkamp, a senior engineer at Swiftmud who has worked closely with Largo on the project.

    Swiftmud has provided an additional $400,000 toward the project. It is one of nine agencies that has provided money. Florida Power, Winn-Dixie and Shell Oil also have contributed financially.

    "A lot of folks were involved in this," Holtkamp said. "A lot of folks trying to attain a common goal."

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